Sotheby’s had a brilliant night on Nov. 4, 2009. It was a carnival, as if the down-market sale at Christie’s the evening before had never occurred. Tobias Meyer, the auctioneer, led the sale with amiability, and bidders were on his side from the first lot. Some lots set records. Lots of marginal quality sold at very high prices. Excellent lots with reasonable estimates occasionally sold at very reasonable prices. A few great lots passed, and a few dreadful ones as well. Passing took a lot doing. If it was on the turntable, it sold.
Sotheby’s had consignments from the Durand-Ruel family and from the estate of Arthur Sackler. Not all of it was brilliant. Sotheby’s catechized about the freshness of the material and its provenance, but freshness doesn’t guarantee quality and what remains in a dealer’s estate is often work that went unsold. It didn’t make a difference. The works set records. The people manning the phone banks were giddy. Tobias Meyer was giddy. The bidding went on endlessly in weird half-bids that would have been annoying if the amounts weren’t so staggering, particularly after the sale at Christie’s, where there were often no bids at all. Tobias flushed out bids, bluffed seamlessly past secret reserves and sold to single bidders. When the Durand-Ruel and Sackler consignments ran out, his momentum did not. The recession is over.
In all, the sale totaled $181,760,000 with the auction-house premium, above the presale estimate (est. $115.3 million-$163 million), with 56 of the 66 lots selling, or almost 85 percent. Five works sold for more than $10 million, and new records were set for Andre Derain ($14,802,500, with premium) and Kees van Dongen ($13,802,500, with premium).
Hammer prices are quoted below; prices with premiums are given in the photo captions.
Lot 1, Salvador Dali, Giraffe en feu, 1937, est. $150,000-$200,000. Painted in 1936, a giraffe on fire, perhaps an arcane reference to eating zoo animals in Madrid during the Spanish Civil War, perhaps not. Awful. The first three rows appeared to all bid at once. Cygnes refletant des elephants, 1937, sold in 1995 for $3.5 million. Giraffe on Fire, with a high estimate of $200,000, sold in four seconds for $1.6 million.
Lot 2, Pablo Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, 1938, est. $500,000-$700,000. A small, complex pencil drawing on graph paper from 1938, a detailed proposal for a picture never made of a luminous Dora Maar in an armchair. It has been owned by all the best dealers, who then sold it on. It is a drawing with all the answers but none of the questions. Exquisite but perhaps not quite a keeper. Sold for $750,000.
Lot 3, Alberto Giacometti, Buste de Diego (Epaules longues), 1961, est. $1,500,000-$2,000,000. This is one of six. Christie’s sold another number from the edition (3/6) for $800,000 in 2003, which allows the view that this lot distills Sotheby’s perception of the market, new economic discipline notwithstanding, into a number. Sold for $1.4 million.
Lot 5, Kees van Dongen, Nu au Chapeau Noir, 1906, est. $1,200,000-$1,800,000. A painting of a shapely nude in a large hat, which covers her eyes but not her coquettish smile nor anything else. Not exactly inaccessible. One owner kept it for 38 years as the mascot to his reveries. Only the nude stay young. Sold for $3.1 million, almost double the high estimate.
Lot 6, Edouard Manet, Quatre Pommes, 1882, est. $650,000-$800,000. Manet is not known for still-lifes. This is brilliant, understated and cozy. They are small and rare. One appeared in 1985, sold for $330,000, a second in 1995 for the same price. Sold tonight for $1.7 million.
Lot 7, Kees van Dongen, Jeune Arabe, 1910-11, est. $7,000,000-$10,000,000. The only van Dongen to come to market front-loaded with esthetics rather than anatomy. It is monumentally plain, deft and a visual tour de force in the absence of all van Dongen’s habitual art licks, soft-edged shadows in acidic green, or haloed outlines in electric blue. Femme au grand chapeau sold in 2005 for $9.7 million, and L’Ouled Nail sold in 2008 for $11.2 million, both pictures evolving out of the darker, prurient side of the force. Sotheby’s, by its estimate, expected a record price and delivered. Sold for $12.5 million.
Lot 9, Fernand Leger, Les Trois Musiciens, 1932, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. It is a black-and-white picture of three musicians in Art Deco Cubism on a cab yellow background, surrounded by a thick, dark, imposing frame. Picasso painted the same subject to greater effect in 1921 but his is not nearly as welcoming. Leger’s Marie l’acrobate, larger, sold in 2002 for $2.2 million. The giant Les acrobates (les perroquets), 1933, sold in 1989 for $6.5 million, the period high. Les Trois Musiciens sold tonight for $5 million. Almost a record.
Lot 10, Alberto Giacometti, L’homme qui chavire, 1951, est. $8 million-$12 million. An animated "falling man," perhaps resembling a handball player, the Wall Street sport. Sold in a different cast in 2007 for $18.5 million at Christie’s over an estimate of $6,500,000-$8,500,000. Sotheby’s put its estimate up, but citing economic discipline, did not push it up all the way, though condition was a rumored factor as well. Perhaps the falling man fell. . . up. Sold for $17.2 million.
Lot 11, Balthus, Etude pour Le Lever, 1974, est. $400,000-$600,000. A faint, large pencil drawing of a barely preadolescent girl, with her nightie all ahoo and her legs ajar. It used to be that if this sort of thing was on your computer it came with a virus, now it comes with a visit from the FBI. Sold for $650,000.
Lot 16, Camille Pissarro, Le Pont Boieldieu et la gare D’Orleans, Rouen, Soleil, 1898, est. $2,000,000-$3,000,000. Durand-Ruel encouraged Pissarro to paint Rouen in an early attempt at "branding," though not everyone would have agreed that it was his richest venue. Till now. Le Pont Boieldieu et la gare D’Orleans, Rouen, matin, cinq heures, sold for $2.9 million in June 2006. It was the first work of its kind to appear since 1989 and the costliest of the period, landscape or cityscape. In last night's drawn-out poker game where there were no cards, just money, Le Pont Boieldieu et la gare D’Orleans, Rouen, Soleil sold for $6.2 million.
Lot 20, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Femme au chapeau blanc, 1893, est. $2,500,000-$3,500,000. Perhaps in tidier times she was the mascot of Durand-Ruel’s reveries, viewed over her shoulder at a slightly voyeuristic angle in a jello mold of a hat, placeless, and with no background. Jeune fille au chapeau de paille, in the same minimalist format, sold for $5.5 million in 1990. In 2007, Jeune fille au chapeau noir a fleur rouge, which assuredly sits on the model’s head like a dead muskrat, sold for $2.2 million. Femme au chapeau blanc sold tonight for $2.5 million.
Lot 24, Vasily Kandinsky, Krass und mild (Dramatic and mild), 1932, est. $6,000,000-$8,000,000. Large, stiff, labored and tedious from an otherwise gifted painter, still for its period, the arid, less painterly climes of the 1930s, it is an effusive painting, event-packed, with small, odd, geometric cataclysms. In reference to his later oeuvre it is among the largest, hence a major work. Center with Accompaniment, 1937, still larger, sold for $4.5 million in 1993. Nothing since then. Sold tonight for $9.4 million.
Lot 27, Chaim Soutine, Paysage de Gregolieres, 1920, est. $800,000-$1,200,000. A tortured landscape. "See or shut your eyes, says nature peevishly." A difficult, cadenced picture, but similar to one of the 21 Soutines at the Barnes Collection, along with an accommodating estimate. Two versions of Les plantanes a Ceret appeared recently, the smaller in 2007, selling for $1,750,000 and the larger and comparable selling for $1,260,000 in 2008. A bargain tonight, as it sold down, covered by the global reserve of the Sackler Estate, for $580,000.
Lot 31, Pablo Picasso, Buste d’homme, 1969, est. $8,000,000-$12,000,000. Do late Picassos have special dispensation? It isn’t likely the high keyed, large scale hi-jinx in late '60s SoHo penetrated the ethos of Southern France. Still, Buste d’homme is colorful, tactile and more pleasant than the late norm, admittedly not the highest bar and no qualitative scale exists, except perhaps cost. Le Baiser, 1969, a soft-core Cubist version of Jeff Koons and Ilona, sold for $17.4 million in 2008. The more elaborate Homme a la pipe, 1968, sold in November 2007 sold for $16.8 million. The smaller, but plainly and comparably formatted, Homme assis au fusil, 1969, sold in February 2008 for $11.1 million. Buste d’homme sold above its station for $9.2 million.
The Picasso sale also marked the threshold where the coach, sensing either certain victory or defeat, sends in lesser players, some few who shine.
Lot 41, Edgar Degas, Avant la course, 1882-88, est. $4,000,000-$6,000,000. A polished, serene vignette of track life that was held by John Hay Whitney for 75 years before it sold for $4.4 million at the Whitney sale in 2004 where the $104-million Picasso Garcon a la Pipe had sold earlier that evening. That night it was peripheral to the main event, tonight it was not. Sold for $4.1 million.
Lot 46, Marino Marini, Grande Teatro, 1958-60, est. $700,000-$900,000. The best Marini painting? That's a big niche, and who would have cared or noticed? The painting Cavallo Rosso sold in 2000 for $730,000. His horse sculptures sell for $7 million. Grande Teatro broke the record and sold for $1.2 million.
Lot 53, Vasily Kandinsky, Flutterhaft (Flutter-like), 1931, est. $1,000,000-$1,500,000. Visceral, desirable, soft-spoken and mysterious; a palimpsest surface like rubbed vellum with discreet geometric shapes fluttering in and out of our attention. Everything that the larger painting was not, for less. Sold for $1.3 million.
Lot 62, Alfred Sisley, Chemin de Prunay a Bougival, 1874, est. $600,000-$900,000. All touch and color, and compositionally more unexpected than say, Pissarro. At his best, the British-born Sisley almost rivals early Monet, but got lost in his adopted French kitchen. This picture went up at Phillips in 2001 in one of their odd Imp-Mod sales and sold for $332,000, but the dividends of living with this for eight years would be high. Le chemin dans la campagne BI’ed in November 2008 over an estimate of $1,000,000-$1,500,000. La route de Marly-le-Roi sold for $1.1 million this February. Both similar. Chemin de Prunay a Bougival passed tonight.
Lot 64, Claude Monet, La Chapelle de Notre Dame de Grace, Honfleur, 1864, est. $400,000-$600,000. This lot shows why Sisley is only almost as good. Monet is all touch and companionable color, but rigorous and more spatial, as if the artist, age 24, would not be subverted by the demands of perspective. Accessible, formidable, crisp but until tonight with a limited market that denigrates the early works, La Chapelle de Notre Dame de Grace, Honfleur sold in Paris in 2002 for $340,000. Tonight it sold in demonic bidding towards the end of the sale, for $750,000.
In between were numerous undistinguished lots. A Modigliani of a half-painted, seated woman, estimated at $3,500,000-$5,000,000, that would have passed last night, managed to sell for $3.2 million. Picasso’s small, random, so-so 1947 head of Francois Gilot, estimated at $4,000,000-$6,000,000, inexplicably sold for $7.2 million. A Monet canvas of Clematis that sold in 1998 for $1 million was estimated tonight at $2,500,000-$3,500,000 and BI’ed. A completely hideous, late, Marc Chagall sold for $1.1 million just above a lowball order bid.
What distinguished the Sotheby's from the Christie's sale was the sheer wave of bidders competing for a slightly better-than-ordinary group of works. Did art return anew as an asset class so suddenly that people bid on almost anything? It felt like George Bush was in the White House. Is it the Bloomberg effect?
For complete, illustrated results, see Artnet’s signature Fine Art Auctions Report.
STEWART WALTZER is a New York art dealer.